If a native English speaker was asked to name seven Greek words, “It’s all Greek to me” would perhaps be a tongue-in-cheek response. And yet the English language is replete with loanwords—that is, words adopted from another language with little to no modification—from Greek.
Perhaps the man who most famously demonstrated this was Xenophon Zolotas, a Greek economist known for his two speeches at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in the late 1950s. As the story goes, Zolotas spoke in Greek, yet he was understood by his English-speaking audience.
Here is a short excerpt:
With enthusiasm we dialogue and synagonize at the synods of our didymous organizations in which polymorphous economic ideas and dogmas are analyzed and synthesized. Our critical problems such as the numismatic plethora generate some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch.
Although this remains a fine example, we should be honest in recognizing that the text comes off as excessively artificial. Maybe loanwords can be too much of a good thing.
For a text ostensibly accessible to both Greek- and English-speaking audiences, I suspect (I … theorize) that Greek as well as English speakers would have some trouble recognizing much of the text.
The reason is that loanwords can be obscure, not only because they are used less often, but mainly because their meanings can be more nuanced.
In particular, a foreign word can often convey a meaning that is slightly different—usually more specific or exact—than what the more canonical word could.
And here is the crux of the matter, and why deploying Greek loanwords can be an important asset in the writer’s toolbox.
Despite their apparent obscurity, Greek words can be extremely useful to writers requiring accuracy and exactness. If the usual English word seems to be slightly generic or just not quite right, a Greek loanword might come to the rescue.
In writing contexts where argumentation matters (for example, essays, reports, academic texts, or critical analyses), writers should try to maximize the efficiency of their arguments. And that works best when writers can convey rich meaning with fewer words. That is to say, when they write accurately.
From the countless Greek words that can be used in English, here is a list of seven that I personally find the most intriguing. I picked the following words based precisely on their potential to fill linguistic gaps, and their flexibility in conveying nuanced meanings.
Let’s take a look at these words, their meaning, and the ways writers can enrich their writing by deploying these Greek loanwords.
The first two words of the list above might be familiar to an experienced reader. Still, they are almost invariably deployed in specific contexts (mostly academic writing), so you should not feel bad if you couldn’t identify them.
The word “oneiron” is a noun that literally means “dream.” The form most familiar to English readers is probably the adjective “oneiric,” meaning “related to dreams or dreaming.”
The reason why I include “oneiron” in this list is its rare metaphorical usage. For example, the word “dreamy” in the phrase “I paint dreamy landscapes” very often connotes “beautiful,” “surreal,” or, at best, “imagined.”
However, the phrase “I paint oneiric landscapes” describes more accurately a situation where one paints something earlier seen in a dream. If a writer wanted to avoid the ambiguity and specify the literal sense of “dream,” then “oneiron” could be a good candidate.
This would be particularly important for texts requiring accuracy, such as essays, analyses, and nonfiction in general. Here is an actual example from my doctoral dissertation.
I had just finished writing the sentence, “this sense of timelessness is highly dreamy in nature,” and I immediately realized it sounded wrong. I felt that I needed to specify that I meant the word “dreamy” literally, but trying to do so felt even more wrong—few sentences can be more awkward than those trying to explain another sentence.
In the end, I chose “this sense of timelessness is highly oneiric in nature,” and I realized it conveyed exactly the meaning I intended: “related to dreams,” literally.
In a text where, ideally, each word must assist in propelling an argument forward, greater accuracy means that the writer needs less words to convey the intended meaning. This in turn allows the core argument to emerge more clearly, without any distractions.
The noun “kairos” means “time” in Greek. But there is a crucial difference: It doesn’t refer to the chronological, sequential time—there is a different word for it: “chronos”—but to the opportune moment for a specific action.
Hence, a nuanced differentiation can be made, using “kairos” instead of “time” where applicable. For instance, instead of “In these times, it’s difficult to recognize the right time to act,” one can avoid the repetition by substituting “right time” with “kairos.”
Furthermore, it is also important to recognize the intricate nature of the word “kairos” in relation to the evolution of textual (re)production.
In particular, our texts become increasingly more “live.” Thanks to the internet, information often reaches the reader in the present moment as it is being written (think of Twitter news reports). Texts live in the “here-and-now.”
In such a context, not only would it be crucial to understand the meaning conveyed by “kairos,” but it would also indeed be useful for a writer to deploy the word itself, particularly in online texts that deal with the topic of online textual production. What better way to talk about accuracy and timing in online texts than to use the word that describes the whole thing!
The following two words of the list, “idiotes” and “philotimo,” share a common characteristic: On the surface they are quite transparent (indeed, “idiotes” has produced “idiot” in English and many other languages), yet their deeper meaning is quite a bit more complex.
As I mentioned just above, the English word “idiot” has its etymological roots in the Greek “idiotes.” The differences are critical, however, and they are the reason why I include this word on the list.
For ancient Greeks—and in the context of democracy, Athenians—every person was born in a state of ignorance and then became a responsible citizen through education.
Those people who still chose not to be troubled with the affairs of the state were considered “idiotai” (the plural of “idiotes”) or “private persons.” In other words, an “idiotes” was someone too self-centered to be bothered with the common good.
In English, the word “idiot” doesn’t seem to carry the same complexity. Indeed, it is probably one of the most overused derogatory words of the English language—to the extent that its offensiveness is often absent: “I love you, you idiot!”
Personally, I use the term “idiotes” in texts related to politics, education, or management. There are many lessons to be learned there, and the word “idiotes” can convey rich meanings in regard to explaining a state of affairs in a country, a corporation, or any group of people.
As with the word “kairos” above, which is an apt choice for someone opening up the discussion on timing and online texts, using the word “idiotes” can be an excellent opportunity for writers dealing with the issues described by the word—that is, the common good versus selfishness, or participation versus passivity.
Choosing the word “idiotes” would allow writers of such topics to zero in on the specifics of the issue and assist the core argument to emerge more clearly, without the distraction and verbosity caused by an alternative, more generic term.
Another word that appears etymologically easy to grasp, yet its core remains complex. The noun “philotimo” is a combination of the words “philos” (friend) and “timi” (honor). But as in everything meaningful and deep, it is far more than a mere sum of its parts.
A person possessing “philotimo” is someone who acts driven by a deep sense of pride and honor, but there is a subtle difference that makes this word worthy of being part of this list.
Whereas in English “pride” and “honor” might convey a sense of sacrifice, of performing an act as a consequence of submitting to something hierarchically superior, the word “philotimo” implies an inner, personal code of ethics. The acts of people driven by “philotimo” are not a sacrifice, but the only way these people can live with themselves.
Let’s take the sentence, “The soldiers marched bravely against the enemy, obeying their honor” as an example. The word “honor” might convey the sense that it was an act without full volition—the soldiers marched because they had to, not necessarily because they wanted to.
Conversely, the sentence, “The soldiers marched bravely against the enemy, obeying their philotimo” leaves no room for ambiguity: The soldiers marched obeying a personal code of ethics, and they would not have chosen another option, even when available. The difference is subtle but present.
As a word, “philotimo” would be well suited to contexts related to its meaning. For instance, the writer of personal or historical/sociological essays, biographies, and generally any text dealing with personal struggle, would have a lot to gain by using (where applicable) the differentiation provided by the word “philotimo.”
The last three words of the list are the most obscure. A reader would perhaps not find them in an English dictionary. Their usage is not standardized.
And this is where things become interesting.
In Greek, the word “parrhesia” is a combination of the words “everything” and “speech.” Therefore, the noun “parrhesia” effectively means the act of speaking about everything, without any limitation. One might think of it as freedom of speech, but in fact it is something more complex.
Whereas freedom of speech conveys the idea that one can speak freely, “parrhesia” directly suggests that one is obliged to speak freely.
At first this might appear as an oxymoron—parenthetically, another Greek word literally meaning “sharp-dull.” However, what “to speak with parrhesia” means is that one should speak for the common good and point out problems and errors even at personal risk.
The word has undergone several alterations to its meaning throughout the centuries and through different cultures. However, I personally find its original meaning, described above, a very interesting concept that is perhaps rare in our days.
In the context of writing accurately (and hence maximizing the argumentative thrust of a personal essay or an article), “parrhesia” would be a great choice for writers of relevant subjects, that is the obligation to speak freely.
Interestingly, the word also seems to be well coupled with the word “idiotes,” as they are both related to the issue of participation versus apathy, or greater good versus selfishness.
And so, any writer analyzing such concepts should not only feel free to use the word “parrhesia”, but perhaps indeed feel obliged to use it, to increase awareness of the topics involved.
Or, to put it more accurately and efficiently, such writers should write with parrhesia!
In a sense, this is the word that served as the inspiration for this article. It is also the key concept found within one of my novels and a word contained in its title.
As I was working on that novel, I struggled to come up with a proper title. The story is set in Greece so, if possible, I wanted a Greek word as part of the title. But more importantly, I wanted a word that conveyed what the story was about: despair.
“Apognosis” basically means “despair” in Greek, but there is an important difference: Whereas “despair” in English more simply means the loss of hope, “apognosis” means the willing abandonment of knowledge.
In other words, “apognosis” describes the state of mind of a person who has willingly chosen to refuse that they know something. This happened to be exactly the central theme of my novel, and so it was an easy choice for me.
Once again, I would like to emphasize the issue of writing accurately. Like the rest of the words on this list, “apognosis” describes a very specific aspect of the human condition, yet one that most people recognize and could relate to—it is perhaps puzzling that there is no single-word English equivalent for it.
Although I’m a philologist, rather than a psychologist, I would still argue that a person could experience “apognosis” while not experiencing “despair.” That is, they could be in a state of mind characterized by passivity, stagnation, and repressed knowledge, without having lost hope.
Therefore, writers of any kind (whether fiction or nonfiction) should be familiar with the word offering this subtle differentiation, and use it where it is required.
The noun “thymosophia” is probably one of my personal favorites on this list. It consists of the words “thymos” and “sophia,” respectively meaning “spiritedness” and “wisdom.” But, as with “philotimo” further above, this word is more than just a sum of its parts.
“Thymosophia” is a complex word describing a person who is wise not because of formal education or even life experience but because of an innate, pragmatic knowledge of life. Sometimes it can describe collective cultural knowledge of a condition or a situation.
One might perhaps think that “street-smart” would be a synonym, but the words are very different. While “street-smart” describes someone able to deal with everyday challenges (and mostly in an urban environment), “thymosophical” refers to much more philosophical, cerebral processes, related to one’s attitude toward life.
The word can be used to describe the process as well as the person. Here are two examples, respectively:
As it becomes apparent, it’s a great word to use when referring to such people or processes, and hence a great tool for writers of such texts.
Every now and then I see people ending a sentence with three, five, or even more exclamation points. Does it make me feel more excited about the preceding sentence? Of course not. On the contrary, it makes me think the writing is sloppy, at best.
Overusing exclamation points, ellipses, CAPITALIZATION (I hate this), or bold font negates their intended meaning. To end every other sentence with an exclamation point or to display every other paragraph in italics dilutes any effect these could have had.
The same lesson applies to using Greek words in English texts,especially when these words are obscure and arcane. A writer should deploy such words carefully and with moderation, to avoid overwhelming the reader.
As it often happens in writing, one single carefully placed word can make the entire text fall into place. Using specific words with accurate meaning is sometimes all it takes. In my novel, the word “apognosis” appears only once inside the manuscript. But it’s in a pivotal scene where the protagonist finally begins to realize what his predicament is.
It is important, however, to note a practical issue that authors must consider when using a Greek word, or indeed any word that is unusual and complex: How can a writer make sure that the reader recognizes the word in question?
Although these words can be very useful in given contexts, many readers would not be able to recognize the nuanced meanings involved. My suggestion to writers is to be forthcoming and direct in providing accurate definitions.
A writer can offer the definition at the beginning of a chapter or even the entire book, if applicable. Alternatively, a writer can simply dedicate a few lines of an introductory paragraph analyzing the word, much as I did in this article for each of the seven words.
When applicable, even a brief definition enclosed in parentheses would do. Here’s an example:
Still, it is important to remember not to underestimate one’s reading audience. With just a little bit of help in the form of a simple definition or short analysis, the reader will always “get it.”
After all, although a word itself might be unknown, its associated concept often describes a human experience that is independent of language, and therefore innately recognized. Good writers should not be condescending, and great writers should inspire (but not force) readers to demand more of their own self. This is the best way to improvement for writers and readers alike.
As Hailey Hudson aptly wrote in her article “The 5 Craziest Words in English and How to Use Them,” one should not feel pretentious when it comes to using obscure words.
Ultimately, using Greek words is a matter of accurately conveying your intended meaning. It should not be a mere end in itself. If a standard, widely used English word can convey the author’s meaning, there is no need to muddle the text with unusual words.
In addition, ambiguity is sometimes what the writer intends. An author might write “I paint dreamy landscapes” precisely to allow all interpretations.
However, every now and then we want to convey the feeling of “philotimo,” not honor; the feeling of “apognosis,” not despair; or the feeling of “thymosophia,” not wisdom.
In these and similar cases, I am an ardent supporter of accuracy in writing.
To write accurately is to write skillfully, and (more importantly) to write accurately is to respect one’s readers.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. His research interests include Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, the usage of time as well as the concept of ambiguous ontology in such narratives. In the context of fiction writing, he has published some works of horror and science fiction using a pen name, though his main authorial interest is situated in literary fiction. He is also a freelance editor and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction.